The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

Version: Abridged
Author: Karen Armstrong
Narrator: Karen Armstrong
Genres: History, Religion & Spirituality, Religious Studies
Publisher: Random House Audio Assets
Published In: March 2006
# of Units: 10 CDs
Length: 12 hours
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From one of the world’s leading writers on religion and the highly acclaimed author of the bestselling A History of God, The Battle for God and The Spiral Staircase, comes a major new work: a chronicle of one of the most important intellectual revolutions in world history and its relevance to our own time.

In one astonishing, short period – the ninth century BCE – the peoples of four distinct regions of the civilized world created the religious and philosophical traditions that have continued to nourish humanity into the present day: Confucianism and Daoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Historians call this the Axial Age because of its central importance to humanity’s spiritual development. Now, Karen Armstrong traces the rise and development of this
transformative moment in history, examining the brilliant contributions to these traditions made by such figures as the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Ezekiel.

Armstrong makes clear that despite some differences of emphasis, there was remarkable consensus among these religions and philosophies: each insisted on the primacy of compassion over hatred and violence. She illuminates what this “family” resemblance reveals about the religious impulse and quest of humankind. And she goes beyond spiritual archaeology, delving into the ways in which these Axial Age beliefs can present an instructive and thought-provoking challenge to the ways we think about and practice religion today.

A revelation of humankind’s early shared imperatives, yearnings and inspired solutions – as salutary as it
is fascinating.

Excerpt from The Great Transformation:

In our global world, we can no longer afford a parochial or exclusive vision. We must learn to live and behave as though people in remote parts of the globe were as important as ourselves. The sages of the Axial Age did not create their compassionate ethic in idyllic circumstances. Each tradition developed in societies like our own that were torn apart by violence and warfare as never before; indeed, the first catalyst of religious change was usually a visceral rejection of the aggression that the sages witnessed all around them. . . .

All the great traditions that were created at this time are in agreement about the supreme importance of charity and benevolence, and this tells us something important about our humanity.

Reviews (2)

Revolutionary Religions

Written by Mandi Chestler from Lake Oswego, OR on January 30th, 2009

  • Book Rating: 3/5

A worthy book that demonstrates just how incredibly revolutionary and influential were the religious and philosophical innovations created in China, India, Israel and Greece in the 9th through 1st centuries BCE (Before the Common Era). It demonstrates how Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Greek philosophy have shaped our thinking for almost 3000 years, nourished newer religions like Christianity and Islam, and encouraged humans to prioritize compassion and empathy over hatred and violence. Even though this CD is abridged, it is still a challenge to get through with many complicated and confusing names, places and dates.

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

Written by Anonymous from Oakland, CA on April 28th, 2007

  • Book Rating: 3/5

The first few disks were interesting but the book failed to hold my attention through the end. Somewhat encyclopedic-feeling from an author whom I have previously found more engaging.

Author Details

Author Details

Armstrong, Karen

"Karen Armstrong spent seven years in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus during the 1960s and later wrote a tell-all book, ""Through the Narrow Gate"" (St. Martin's Press, 1982) that bemoaned the restrictive life. (The frightened nuns did not know the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 had ended for several weeks; they were not allowed to inquire about the outside world.) Armstrong is still hearing about the book: ""Catholics in England hate me. They've sent me excrement in the mail."" Readers who have followed her lately are learning her more optimistic ideas about what Islam, Judaism and Christianity have in common with A History of God (Ballantine, 1993), Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (Knopf, 1996) and The Battle for God (Knopf, 2000) which all focus on what unites the three great monotheist faiths.

Armstrong teaches Christianity at London's Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism. It was her first trip to Jerusalem in 1983 that piqued her interest in commonality among faiths. ""I got back a sense of what faith is all about."" At the time she was an atheist who was ""wearied"" by religion and ""worn out by years of struggle."" Born a Roman Catholic in the countryside near Birmingham, England, in 1945, she gave up on religion after her time in the convent. ""I was suicidal,"" she said of life in her late 20s. ""I didn't know how to live apart from that regimented way of life.""

With an undergraduate degree in literature from Oxford University, she began teaching 19th and 20th century literature at the University of London and worked on a PhD. Three years later, her dissertation was rejected. Without it, she did not qualify to teach at the university level and took a job as head of the English department at a girls' school in London. Not long afterward, she was diagnosed with epilepsy. ""After six years at the school I was asked to leave, but nicely,"" she said. ""My early life is a complete catastrophe. It all worked out for the best.""

She left the school in 1982 and began working on television documentaries. The story that took her to Jerusalem set her on a new career path and changed her earlier impressions about God. She went from atheist to ""freelance monotheist"" but has never returned to the Catholic Church or joined any other.

Since her writing career took off, Armstrong's communion with God occurs in the library, where she spends up to three years researching her books, which are as densely packed with detail as her conversations. ""I get my spirituality in study,"" she said. ""The Jews say it happens, sometimes, studying the Torah.""

Armstrong says, ""It's inevitable that people turn to more than one religious tradition for inspiration,"" she said. ""It's part of globalization."" She recently read from the Buddhist canon of teachings for her next book. ""Religion is like a raft,"" she said, explaining the Buddha's view of it. ""Once you get across the river, moor the raft and go on. Don't lug it with you if you don't need it anymore."" She knows that mode of travel: Leave one raft behind to pick up the next just ahead.

She is the author of numerous books on religious affairs which have been translated into forty languages. She is also the author of three television documentaries and took part in Bill Moyers?s television series Genesis. Since September 11, 2001, she has been a frequent contributor to conferences, panels, newspapers, periodicals, and throughout the media on both sides of the Atlantic on the subject of Islam. She lives in London"